The Pursuit of Happilyness

Everyone searches for joy and peace, hoping to find something that makes them happy. Regardless of the pursuit, few things are worth the journey without the company of those you love. These are some of the footprints one twenty-something man left in the sand while pursuing…happiness.

Note: This is a long post with a lot of personal insights and life lessons. If you’re a tl;dr kinda person, scroll to the bottom and read my vendetta for 2014.

1) Pursuing a New Home

In the fall of 2009, I moved to Springfield, Missouri. The idea was to spend some time learning and working with a small group of my best friends, and in the meantime we would try to learn more about life, together. Until that point I had lived in Omaha, Nebraska for the first 24 years of my life, residing either with my parents or the friends who initiated my Southward migration. I had a good church, a college degree, a great home, and was generally a picture of an average mid-twenty-something who grew up on the rolling hills of the Great Plains – working hard and loving life.

I have never written about the townhome in Omaha, Nebraska where all of this began. For a period of six months, these friends and I rented a two-story townhome, taking some of our first steps out into the wild, away from the protection of our families. We were still in the same town, but it sure felt different to pay our own rent and fix our own leaky pipes. We played a lot of Guitar Hero, burned the midnight oil, and worked our respective jobs as paperboys, gas station managers, retail clerks, and computer geeks.

Perhaps the turning point in this chapter of our lives was reading a book called Family Driven Faith. There were lots of books, movies, and other things that gave us pause, but none challenged our perceptions for the future like that title. It was the right place and time for the exact insight contained in those pages; I can’t speak for any of the others, but my individual visions and “tone” changed right around that time.

Two of the townhome members got engaged, moved out, and were married before our lease ended. One of the members moved to a new state to be with their family. I packed up the remains and moved back in with my family, determined to finish the final months of college and bolster my future with less overhead expenses. I cannot say enough times how wonderful it was to grow up with the knowledge that I could always come home, something that I swear to do for my future children until the day I die.

But…there was more to be done. More to pursue. After I graduated, I moved to Missouri and began looking for the next piece of the puzzle.

2) Pursuing the Dream Job

Now that I was here, it was time to get some work. I hunted around for jobs and searched for anything that would fit my skillset. I didn’t find anything. I was once more living with a few friends while hunting for an apartment, helping with a new church, and hoping to find work fairly soon. I had been exploring freelance WordPress work for several years, but I wanted something more consistent. I had a future to build.

Today, I still make a living working with WordPress and front-end development. I grew up with a camera in my hand and was taught to love figuring things out from a young age. This is just who I am now; it is impossible for me not to look sideways at things, trying to see them from a new perspective. I needed that skill more than I thought when I hit MO, as tech careers were/are not in abundance around this section of the country.

It was a small web shop and vacation sales company who gave me a desk and something to do, but I did not stay there very long. Within six months the boss said it was obvious that I wanted to pursue something more entrepreneurial, so I should start doing that. (In other words: You have two weeks to live.) I knuckled down and started chasing freelance web development as a full-time job, re-defining starving artist as I signed my first lease the day I was told my job was going away.

That was a really tough time, but it was exciting as well. I thought that I wanted to pursue the freelance lifestyle, that it was about the flexibility, that the ebb and flow were lofty tickets to survival. To match this goal, I got my first pre-approved credit card and accepted financial aid that matched my projected annual income. My thinking was that, with a little help from government friends, I might be able to defer the costs of living until my business really took off. Boy was I mistaken.

Note: I have written other posts about work and the journey to 40Digits; suffice to say that the pursuit for a good employer is over for a while. I really enjoy what I do, whom I work with, and the future we are building every day.

3) Pursuing Honorable Relationships

Note: In this next section, I want to make very clear that I was the one in the wrong, that the following events were because of my mixed-up ideas of what mattered most in life. I was given kind permission to expound on those points by someone whom I hurt through that confusion.

Over the course of nearly five years, I had been dating and growing closer to someone whom I met through tech ministry at my parent’s church. The two of us struck it off as we worked on a dinner theater production, talking mostly about movies and Apple computers, which I was delighted to learn could mean as much to someone else as they did me. (This pre-dated podcast networks like 5by5, thank you very much. It was a lonely time for Mac nerds.)

Our time together was exactly what both of us needed. We began dreaming about the future, finding more common ground than opposition and enjoying what we knew about our shared pursuits. I was a pre-twenty-something who moderated a Star Wars filmmaking forum and wanted to work for either ILM or Bungie, perhaps both. She was a gifted project manager who actually enjoyed talking about greenscreens and the philosophy behind The Lord of the Rings. An opportunity came up for me to take a lead concert tech position out in California, which we both thought would be a nice transition into film careers or whatever related fields we could find. I had been flown out to sign the paperwork when everything changed.

Some good friends and mentors of mine showed me things about the new job that completely changed my perspective. It was one of those light bulb moments, when you throw the brakes on everything because you just know something isn’t right. Long story short? I never moved to CA, and instead spent the next few months facing the reasons why I should never have gone through with it. Within that time I had moved into the townhome, started working for myself, and began to learn that I had been pursuing a future without a firm foundation to build upon.

This takes me back to Family Driven Faith. After reading that book, I realized that I was in no position to lead a wife and household, that I was the weak link in that portrait of the future. I knew I had to cease that pursuit for the time being, lest I damage the very thing I was trying to protect. I had seen a glimmer of the future, but it was clouded by my own shortcomings and lack of direction.

That was five years ago this month, yet breaking that off stands among the hardest decisions I have ever had to make.

4) Pursuing a New Land

Flash back to present day here in Springfield, and you might find this late-twenty-something working late at the office or helping someone set up their Christmas tree. These past few years have been filled with prospective projects, creative endeavors, lots of babies being born to close friends, and some really hard times. There is still something missing, like one piece of the puzzle is being shipped separately, someday.

I mentioned before that I’m a film guy at heart, so here are a few observations from the silver screen:

It’s a Wonderful Life

George Bailey really wanted to leave town before it was time to take over his father’s trade at the building and loan. He wasn’t trying to escape that future, but he did want to take the opportunity to get out, see a few things, and build up some of the experiences that would teach him valuable lessons for his future. I imagine a scrawl in his journal including something about his love and respect for his father, whom he knows will be his responsibility to care for one day, yet every page is filled with mild frustration built up from years of longing for more.

Inception

Dominick Cobb is a man in desperate straits. His children are in America, but he is not; significant evidence links his wife’s death to a murder charge against him. Dodging the law and trying to buy back his freedom, he spends his days traversing the fine line between subconsciousness and theft. Eventually he lands job that purchases his freedom, but along the way he is haunted by a sense of responsibility for the choice his wife made to take her own life, believing that he drove her to that point when they lost perspective.

Dan in Real Life

Dan Burns is a single father and columnist who needs to read his own advice. He spends most of the movie trying to understand why his family is getting the short end of the stick in life, eventually realizing that his pursuit of professional goals is damaging their relationship. The real goal he needs to work toward is being the best dad he can be, to fill his role in that situation for the betterment of everyone in his charge.

All of these films have something in common: Men wanting to work hard, enjoy their time on this rock, and help the people they love. I think these insights are valuable because they have to make decisions on behalf of someone who means very much to them, defining part (most) of their primary motivations through simple necessity. Sure, they could keep their jobs as managers, extractors, or writers, but what’s the point if they have to live the rest of their lives alone?

5) Pursuing Happilyness

When you chase after a bunch of things that you think might be the real goal, you may learn that you are even further away from the bigger pursuit. When you run from those primary purposes, you lie to yourself and others about your real motivations. That may sound horridly trite for something all of us deal with, but I believe that every person alive wonders about the bigger meaning behind things.

I’ve pursued a lot of things since the townhome:

  • I struggled with the balance between online and offline friendships, wondering if the people posting in the forums would be there if I had a flat tire, or if I would do the same for them.

  • ILM, Bungie, California, etc. were all goals that I pursued out of a desire to make things, but I never asked bigger questions about what I should be making.

  • Resources like 5by5 are places where I have learned a lot of great life lessons, but the lasting effects of what my friends and I have gone through, or what my parent taught me? Those truly stuck.

Intermediate goals are not final destinations, but if treated like “someday, maybe” lists in our to-do system, they will never be reached! If you’re trying to figure out what to do after college, when to pursue a spouse, or how to get through the next week without any new gray hair, maybe it’s time to stop hunting for puzzle pieces that don’t seem to have a place. Who cares if you get new column readers, freelance gigs, or an insanely good job, if that becomes your only purpose?

I moved to Missouri because it was an opportunity to grow. I wanted to spend time working alongside people whom I care about, fighting for things that were more important than where we ate, drank, or wore. Obviously those are questions everyone has to answer at some point, but I see now that the bigger purpose was much more than the sum of its parts. I moved to Missouri to work with my best friends, yes, but not because we had projects to work on or businesses to build. It was to be here with them during a key phase of life as new families were born. Believe me, it has been quite the ride.

Prologue: Fight for the Users

All great journeys take time. You face danger and have to take new risks sometimes. You have to chase things that don’t make a lot of sense to anyone else in order to keep your companions safe. The people who will be there with you during those pursuits ought to be the closest and most precious to you.

Despite my many failings, I still have hopes of getting married and having a family of my own. The things that I pursue every day until then will pay dividends, good or bad. When that day comes it will be important to have a good foundation in place, and will undoubtedly be very apparent how I spent the time up to that point. That means doing things with a long-range goal even if it makes things extra hard in the short-term. It means working late, forging new territories, doing less for myself, and trying to invest in a future that will scale beyond my selfish needs.

If you spend your time cranking on something, I hope you do it in the service of making things happen for people. Pursuing happiness is a lonely business if you’re the only one left standing. Try to find a way to make the journey better for the people around you along the way. You may not always have them there with you.

Why the the long face? Because what all of us long to have is something we cannot take for ourselves. We long for fulfillment, value, and purpose, but those currencies are only good in the economies of people we love. They are the ones who give us that reward; no work on our part can purchase lasting value for ourselves, and even if it could, we only have a handful of decades to enjoy it anyway.

Don’t settle for empty praise or materialistic ends. Have fun pursuing things will make sense years from now. Take time this year to help other people, and I believe you’ll find…happiness.